Edward E. Malone, reporter for the London Gazette, is a young man seeking to prove himself. That was why he volunteered to interview Professor George E. Challenger, the most dangerous scientist in England, and then to accompany the expedition organized by the London Zoological Institute to investigate Challenger's claims of a remote plateau in the Amazon where prehistoric creatures have survived to the present day.
He has had his share of adventures since arriving on the plateau, but he now faces perhaps his most terrifying. He has returned to the Fort Challenger, the expedition's camp, after an impulsive excursion into the dinosaur-infested forest of the plateau to find that the camp has been ransacked and his companions gone. He is now completely alone.
Malone spends much of the day recording the previous night's adventure so he can toss it down to Zambo, the party's faithful black servant who waits vigilantly at their original camp at the base of the cliffs. Zambo has thought of an idea to save the party, which is stranded on top of the plateau. He tells Malone that one of their Indian guides has returned, and suggests that they send him back to civilization for more rope. This does not seem to have occurred to any of the Men of Intellect leading the expedition; apparently their brains are too highly-developed. Malone agrees and tosses him some money to pay for the errand; but this does not help with his immediate problem.
He spends an uncomfortable night in their deserted camp. It is the safest place he can think of to stay. When he is startled awake the next day, however, it is not by an invader, but by Lord John Roxton.
"Quick, young fellah! Quick!" he cried. "Every moment counts. Get the rifles, both of them. I have the other two. Now, all the cartridges you can gather. Fill up your pockets. Now, some food. Half a dozen tins will do. That's all right! Don't wait to talk or think. Get a move on, or we are done!"It isn't until the two of them have found a new safe haven that Lord John explains what happened. The previous morning, just around sunrise, the camp had been attacked by savage ape-like creatures who descended from the large ginko tree whose branches overhung their walls. "Ape-men -- that's what they are -- Missin' Links, and I wish they had stayed missin'."
Lord John shot one of the creatures, accounting for the blood in the camp, but the rest quickly overpowered the party. They might have been killed right there but for a singular coincidence. The leader of the ape-men bore a remarkable resemblence to Professor Challenger.
Here I have to credit Arthur Conan Doyle's artistry. He's been setting up this joke from the very beginning. All through the book so far, the narration has emphasized Challenger's striking appearence -- his broad shoulders, his barrel chest, his hairy torso and beard, even his bestial temper -- but he is always compared to a bull. Nowhere in the book does Malone ever make the obvious comparison; nowhere does he ever say that Challenger, the great evolutionary biologist, looks like a gorilla. No, that would have anticipated the joke.
"This old ape-man -- he was their chief -- was a sort of red Challenger, with every one of our friend's beauty points, only just a trifle more so. He had the short body, the big shoulders, the round chest, no neck, a great ruddy frill of a beard, the tufted eyebrows, the 'What do you want, damn you!' look about the eyes, and the whole catalogue."Lord John goes on to describe being taken to the village of the ape-men. Although Challenger is treated handsomely as a guest -- the ape-chief seems to regard him as a long-lost brother -- Roxton and Professor Summerlee are held captive, along with a group of Indians from elsewhere on the plateau. They also learn the horrifying secret behind the bamboo grove where they found the skeleton earlier. The village lies near the edge of the plateau, and for entertainment, the ape-men force their prisoners to jump off the edge to be impaled on the bamboo stalks. Roxton and Summerlee witness this done to a couple of the Indians, and they know their turn will come soon.
With Challenger's help, Lord John was able to escape and now that he has armed himself and has Malone to back him up is ready to mount a rescue.
They arrive just in time: the ape-men are just about to chuck Summerlee over the edge of the cliff, despite Challenger's vociferous pleas. Lord John puts a rifle bullet into the chief and he and Malone begin picking off the savage ape-men. Seeing their chance, Challenger and Summerlee make a run for it to join their companions
"Admirable!" Challenger exclaims when they have all gotten to safety. "Not only we as individuals, but European science collectively, owe you a debt of gratitude for what you have done."
The Indians whom the ape-men had taken captive have accompanied their escape. "We've got to see them safe," Summerlee says. Malone can guess where they come from: the caves he spotted on the far side of the Lake Gladys.
During their brief rest, Challenger expresses some concern to Malone about a few of the comments Lord John made, "which seemed to imply that there was some -- some resemblance..." Malone assures him that the account he's writing of the expedition shall stick strictly to the truth, which seems to calm him somewhat.
"I leave the matter to your discretion." Then, after a long pause, he added: "The king of the ape-men was really a creature of great distinction -- a most remarkably handsome and intelligent personality. Did it not strike you?"But their new camp is no safer from the pursuing ape-men and soon they must move again. They head toward the Central Lake. Arriving at its shore, they encounter a group of long canoes which are crossing from the other side. One of the captive Indians is the son of their chief who has sent a war party to rescue him.
"A most remarkable creature," said I.
The young prince speaks with the war party, and although Malone cannot understand the native language, from their gestures he can guess what the prince is saying: he wants the war party to continue its raid and with the aid of the four strangers they will be able to defeat their enemies, the ape-men, for good.
Lord John is all for aiding the Indians. "I have a score to settle with these monkey-folk." Malone and Challenger both agree to help. Summerlee observes that they seem to be drifting from the purpose of their expedition, but agrees to come along.
The battle is a bloody, brutal one. The ape-men are strong and armed with heavy clubs and nearly drive back the human attackers; but the expedition's rifles make the difference and turn the tide. Once the humans gain the upper hand, the battle becomes a massacre. Even Lord John, who was a soldier in his first profession -- or perhaps because he was a soldier -- has enough of the bloodshed. "It's over," he says once the fight has ended and turned into a slaughter. "I think we can leave the tidying up to them. Perhaps the less we see of it the better we shall sleep."
Challenger has no such qualms. "We have been privileged," he boasts, "to be present at one of the typical decisive battles of history -- the battles which have determined the fate of the world." In his view, the fight between the Indians and the ape-men for dominance over the plateau is a recapitulation of the evolutionary struggle between Early Man and his more primitive cousins. "Those were the real conquests," he says.
Malone is less enthusiastic. The ape-men who survive the battle are rounded up by the Indians and herded at spear-point over the edge of the cliff, just as the ape-men had killed so many of their own captives. The males of Ape-Town are exterminated; only a small remnant of females and children survive to be driven back across the plateau, slaves to the new masters of the plateau. It is genocide.
It was a raw, primeval version of the Jews in Babylon or the Israelites in Egypt. At night we could hear from amid the trees the long-drawn cry, as some primitive Ezekiel morned for fallen greatness and recalled the departed glories of Ape Town. Hewers of wood and drawers of water, such were they from now onwards.Challenger might regard the fate of the ape-men as evolutionary destiny, but Malone can still feel pity for them.
The Challenger expedition is welcomed by the Accala tribe, as the cave-dwelling Indians call themselves. From the Indians they learn that there was indeed a tunnel leading to lower on the side of the plateau -- the route the American Maple White had taken, and presumably the way the ape-men and later the Indians also reached the top -- but that it had been blocked by an earthquake about a year previously.
But although the Accala people show them every other hospitality, they will not help the expedition leave the plateau. They have become victims of their own success. The Indians regard the four strangers as supermen and bearers of good fortune for the tribe.
Over the next few weeks, Malone touches on a number of incidents in their life amongst the Accala. They learn that the Indians herd the gentle iguanodons as livestock, marking them with asphalt instead of branding them. On once occasion the community is attacked by a couple of the large carnivorous dinosaurs which had attacked Fort Challenger. Oddly enough, and no doubt to Lord John's chagrin, their rifles prove little use against the monsters and the Indians's poison arrows more effective at bringing them down.
Malone briefly mentions encounters with other creatures of the plateau, including a strange, white nocturnal creature in a nearby swamp of which the party could only catch a glimpse, and fresh water plesiosaurus in the great Central Lake.
On another occasion, Malone sees Lord John striding along inside a sort of portable cage made of bent canes. "Visitin' my friends, the pterodactyls," he explains. Challenger has asked him to catch one of the "devil chicks" as Lord John calls them. And he has other reasons for visiting the nests of which he is more guarded. "Don't you think other people besides Professors can want to know things? ...I'm studyin' the pretty dears. That's enough for you."
Meanwhile, Professor Challenger has been putting his brain to finding a way down off the plateau. He has found a bubbling mud geyser emitting a flammable gas which he determines is nearly pure hydrogen. He has made a balloon out of an iguanodon's entrails which he fills with the gas using a primitive bamboo pipeline. Summerlee thinks the idea is ludicrous and so Challenger arranges a demonstration of his device. The balloon works too well and nearly carries Challenger off over the treetops. They wind up losing the balloon, but overall Challenger regards the experiment as a success.
The evening of the adventure with the balloon, the chief's son, whom they had rescued from the ape-men and who has been sympathetic to their attempts to escape, comes to them secretly and gives Malone a piece of bark with a map of the caves in which the Accala live. Some of the caves are uninhabited, used mostly for storage, and of those there is one which goes deeper into the cliff than the others.
The party investigates the cave and finds that it does indeed penetrate all the way through to the side of the plateau. The opening was hidden from below, so they hadn't noticed it when they made their initial circumnavigation of the plateau's base. It's still pretty high up, but low enough that they can reach the bottom of the cliff with their ropes. The party gathers up as much of their supplies as they can in secret, so that the Accala won't hinder their departure; including one particular piece of baggage Challenger insists on bringing which gives them no end of trouble.
And by one of those happy coincidence which make Victorian fiction so much more convenient, they make their way back to their original base camp at the foot of the plateau just as the rescue party Zambo sent for arrives, allowing a speedy journey back down the river and home to England.
Malone jumps ahead to the Expedition's triumphant return to England. He turns the narrative over to a fellow reporter in describing Professor Summerlee's presentation to the London Zoological Institute. Summerlee gives a brief account of their adventures, (passing lightly over the treachery of Gomez) and descriptions of some of the species, some thought extinct and others unknown to science, which they discovered; concluding with a humorous account of Challenger's experiment in ballooning.
But when he has finished his presentation, there is yet another interruption. Another scientist named Illingworth, a detested rival of both Challenger and Summerlee, (in fact, early stages of the expedition, their mutual dislike of Illingworth was their only point of agreement), rises to take issue with the committee's findings.
Illingworth asks if the testimony of the four explorers is any more reliable than Challenger's was a year ago. Summerlee's collection of new beetles does not impress him; they could of been gathered anywhere in the Amazon and do not by themselves prove the existance of the dinosaurs. The explanation that the party had to leave the bulk of their evidence behind in their flight from the Accura village, Illingworth pooh-poohs; and that Summerlee has no photographic evidence because the ape-men opened up all their film cannisters and exposed the film, meets with his utter scorn.
Challenger does not lose his temper. He has been expecting -- nay, hoping for this reaction. He asks Illingworth if a live specimen would convince him. "Beyond a doubt," Illingworth laughs.
This is when Malone and Zambo bring a large packing crate onto the stage -- the same piece of bulky baggage Malone aluded to earlier. Opening the crate reveals the baby "Devil's Chick" Lord John had captured -- Challenger's ultimate joke on his critics. Alas, the creature is startled by the noise of the crowd and flies out an open window before Challenger can grab it. The creature is last sighted heading southeast over the Atlantic, trying to fly home.
But overall, Challenger has been vindicated, and Malone has returned from his adventure a hero. He goes back to his beloved Gladys to spread his accomplishments like trophies at her feet. And here Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gives us one final punch line. During Malone's absence, Gladys has gotten married. "You didn't get my letter at Para, then? ... I am so sorry about it. But it couldn't have been so very deep, could it, if you could go off to the other end of the world and leave me here alone. You're not crabby, are you?"
Malone takes the bad news like a man, although he does ask Gladys's new husband what adventurous deed he did to win her affection. The man is puzzled. "What is your profession?" Malone presses.
"I am a solicitor's clerk."
Malone returns to Lord John Roxton's place, where Lord John is hosting dinner for his friends. Lord John has a surprise of his own. Remember the blue clay in the pterodactyl's rookery? "Well, now, in the whole world I've only had to do with one place that was a volcanic vent of blue clay. That was the great DeBeers Diamond Mine of Kimberley -- what?" When he went on Challenger's little errand to capture a baby pterodactyl, Lord John also took the opportunity to collect some samples.
He had them appraised at about 200 thousand pounds; enough, split between the friends, for Challenger to found the private museum he's always wanted and for Summerlee to retire from teaching and devote his time to research. Lord John is all for giving Maple White Land another crack, this time with a better equipped expedition. He assumes that Malone intends to use his share to get married.
"Not just yet," said I, with a rueful smile. "I think, if you will have me, that I would rather go with you."